Why We Need EI
Over the past three decades, emotional intelligence (EI) has become an important dimension in most any model of what we call ‘good mental health,’ alongside, for example, positive psychology (e.g., optimism), maturity, subjective well-being, and resilience (Vaillant, 2003).
Emotional intelligence allows us to navigate today’s ever-changing sociocultural world more effectively. Imagine that when you go to work tomorrow you’ll be required to effectively manage 40 employees from 4 different ethnic backgrounds and cultures, 2 genders, 5 religions, 2 generations. Their IQs range from 110-150, they come from different socioeconomic classes, and they play different roles within the company. They have different learning styles, different communication styles, and different views about how to do their jobs effectively. Some are introverted, some extroverted; some are left-brained, some right-brained; some are married, some single. A few are depressed, a few are anxious, a few have unappealing personality traits. Now…
How do you mold this motley crew into a productive team that meets or exceeds the company’s goals? You’ll need emotional intelligence.
And when the workday is over, you go home to your family. Your spouse may be in a bad mood. Your three children, who are as different from each other as night and day, are squabbling. You can’t mow the lawn because your neighbor, who trimmed some trees two weeks ago, still hasn’t removed that pile of tree branches from your yard. And right in the middle of dinner, you’ll get a phone call from your aging mother who has a tendency to complain about imaginary health problems. Again, you’ll need emotional intelligence.
Research suggests that emotional intelligence may be responsible for as much as 80 percent of our “successes” in life (Goleman, 1998). EI allows us to recognize, understand and choose how we think, feel and act.
It shapes our understanding of ourselves and our interactions with others. It defines how and what we learn from our experiences. It helps us set priorities. In reality, our EQ — whether high or low — determines most of our daily actions.
What Marshmallows Can Teach Us About Self-Control and Decision-Making
Self-control is a cornerstone of emotional intelligence, and over the past few decades, many studies have explored the correlation between self-control in childhood to success in adulthood — most famously, the “marshmallow task” experiments first introduced by psychologist Walter Mischel (Mischel, 1970), which explored the ability of 600 four-year-olds to delay instant gratification for the promise of greater reward down the road. One by one, each child was taken into a room and presented with the choice of eating a single marshmallow immediately, or resisting temptation while the researcher stepped out for 15 minutes to run an errand. Upon his return, they would receive two marshmallows if they waited. Most children said they would wait. But three-fourths of them succumbed to temptation and ate the marshmallow. Some gobbled it the second the researcher stepped out the door; others held out for a few minutes — succumbing, on average after 5.72 minutes. Only one-fourth of these four-year-olds were determined to wait the full 15 minutes. They managed to distract themselves by covering their eyes, kicking the desk, putting their heads down, singing to themselves, playing little games or even falling asleep.
Now, in all fairness, we know that young children are notoriously incapable of inhibiting their immediate-response tendency to seek gratification anyway; self-control, after all, is expected to improve with maturity. But we also know that self-control is a major causal factor in later life successes (or failures) (Mischel et al, 1988).
So what became of the marshmallow kids in later life?
Researchers followed them through high school and discovered, remarkably, that the four-year-olds who succumbed to temptation early on were more likely to be lonely, easily frustrated, stubborn, and more likely to avoid challenges and buckle under stress. The ones who had the fortitude to hold out for the second marshmallow generally grew up to be better adjusted, more popular, adventurous, self-confident and dependable teenagers. They were significantly less likely to have problems with substance abuse or obesity. They also scored an average of 210 points higher on the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), compared to the kids who didn’t hold out for the second marshmallow.
The marshmallow task was hailed as a powerful diagnostic tool for predicting personal well-being and later-life achievement — “an early indicator of an apparently long-term personal quality’’ (Mischel et al., 1988). The logic was that a child with self-control can resist fleeting temptations and persist in pursuing difficult goals, thus he or she is likely to achieve more in life.
Resisting the temptation to satisfy immediate fleeting impulses in favor of pursuing long-term goals is important for individual, societal, and economic functioning.
But alluring environmental or social temptations can diminish self-control in the best of us, especially those of us who have a higher sensitivity to environmental influences. So perhaps the results of one followup study of 60 of the preschoolers in Mischel’s original marshmallow task, now in their 40s, should come as no surprise…
Did an inability to delay gratification in childhood predict impulse control problems and sensitivity to alluring social cues in adulthood? They found that the individuals who were less able to delay gratification as four-year-olds (low delayers) and had consistently shown low self-control abilities in their twenties and thirties were less able to suppress a response as fortysomethings to “hot” or tempting environmental stimuli than the high delayers (Casey, 2011).
fMRI scans taken of 26 of the participants while they were responding to alluring environmental cues uncovered the neurobiological basis. In the high delayers who had better self-control, a brain structure in the rational, logical prefrontal cortex, which is known to be associated with exerting deliberate cognitive control during delay of rewards, took control of the decision and allowed them to make a conscious, rational decision to delay gratification. Specifically, the inferior frontal gyrus region in the prefrontal cortex was activated, an area that exerts cognitive control to resolve interference among competing actions (e.g., to choose yes or no) or among competing representations in memory.
But in the more impulsive low delayers, the ventral striatum, which is associated with reward and immediate choices, grabbed control. The brain’s rational, cognitive control and choice-conflict resolution systems were hijacked by the primitive limbic (emotional) system, rendering control systems unable to appropriately modulate behavior. Forty years ago, we didn’t have fMRI to show us, in real-time, what was going on in the brains of these preschoolers while they were contemplating whether to hold out for that second marshmallow.
But, turns out, resistance to temptation, as measured by the original delay-of-gratification marshmallow task, may be a relatively stable individual difference that predicts tendencies in adult brain circuitries that integrate motivational and self-control processes.
Many studies have found cognitive reframing to be highly effective in enhancing delay of gratification. (For an in-depth look at cognitive reframing, see: Stress Management Guide – Practical Cognitive Strategies for Coping with Stress.)
Studies of preschoolers using the classic marshmallow paradigm found that some high-delaying kids were able to restrain their impulses by lowering their emotional temperature; that is, by “cooling” the hot, appealing, or appetitive features of a tempting treat through cognitive reappraisal or reframing strategies that focused on the treat’s cool, unemotional cognitive features; for example, they envisioned the marshmallow as a cloud or a little cotton ball instead of a sweet, delectable (Mischel et al, 1972; Michel, Ayduk, 2004).
But in 2012, University of Rochester researchers revisited the marshmallow task and discovered a new twist: the ability to delay gratification isn’t simply a hardwired, innate skill. Environmental cues also play a role in determining who can hold out for that second marshmallow (Kidd et al, 2012). Before the marshmallow task was administered in this study, the children were first provided with evidence about the reliability of the researcher, who gave them some well-worn crayons to complete an art project, but promised to bring exciting new art supplies if they were willing to wait for a couple of minutes. All of them waited the full 2.5 minutes for the cool new supplies. But for half the kids, the researcher proved to be unreliable and didn’t deliver the new art supplies as promised. For the other half, the supplies were delivered reliably, as promised.
This promise hugely influenced the children’s willingness to hold out for a second marshmallow during the marshmallow task. Only one of the 14 children in the unreliable condition held out for the full 15-minute wait, possibly assuming that the second marshmallow, like the art supplies, was a big lie. More than half the kids who had a reliable encounter, however, survived the 15-minute wait, suggesting that a child’s decision to wait for a greater reward rather than succumbing to instant gratification may be strongly influenced by the reliability of the environment (in this case, the researcher’s verbal assurances of new art supplies).
But perhaps more importantly, this study showed that a child’s ability to delay gratification can be strongly influenced by an implicit, rational decision-making process — some early emotional intelligence, perhaps? Delaying gratification, after all, was only a rational choice if you believed that the second marshmallow was likely to be delivered.
The extrapolation, on a larger scale, is that if a child or adult lives in an environment where promises are broken and outcomes are unreliable, the more rational response is to eat the marshmallow immediately, rather than waiting for promised marshmallows that may never come.
The Split Brain and Emotionally Intelligent Decision-Making
Nowhere is emotional intelligence more critical than in decision-making. Emotional information is circulating all around us — whether we like it or not — and to suggest that reason and passion are incompatible and that one must separate emotion from reason in decision-making is an artificial divide.
Rather, the goal is to temper our emotional information processing with intelligence in a way that enhances your life and helps you achieve your goals.
Intelligent emotion functions as a decision-making shortcut. Without feelings (which may even be unconscious reflexes), we’d often be paralyzed by the vast number of possible choices offered by any one decision — analyzing all the possibilities might never end. But we unconsciously assign an emotional value to each choice — from a gut feeling of dread to a giddy sense of elation — and emotion tips the balance. Emotion limits the field of possible choices.
Renown neuroscientist and neurologist Antonio Damasio, who worked with patients who had suffered brain damage in the form of severed connections between limbic (emotional) brain systems and the rational and logical neocortex, discovered just how critical those neural pathways connecting emotion and reason are to our daily functioning (Damasio, 1994, 1999). He found that people who had lost that crucial link might be just as smart and quick to reason as those of us with intact neural connections, yet their lives often fell apart. They struggled to make decisions because they didn’t know how they felt about their choices. They couldn’t perceive the emotional states of others either, thus were unable to react to warning signs of anger or fear. They didn’t feel regret or shame when they made mistakes, thus they were doomed to repeat those mistakes again and again. In other words, the severing of the information superhighway between the emotional and rational, calculating, logical parts of the brain obliterated their emotional intelligence.
Once feelings come into conscious awareness and are processed through the rational, erudite neocortex, the odds of managing those feelings appropriately and effectively improve. Psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer, who developed the original framework for emotional intelligence, refer to this phenomenon as a meta-mood, an ongoing process associated with moods wherein we continually reflect upon our feelings — monitoring, evaluating and regulating them.
Mood, thought and emotion are independent but interact to create our sense of well-being… or lack of it. For the emotionally intelligent, meta-moods are part of the daily experience. Meta-mood awareness requires EI because emotions often appear in disguise; for example, someone who is recently bereaved may recognize she’s sad, but she may not recognize that she’s also angry at the person for dying.
Salovey and Mayer’s scale measures the meta-mood experience in three general dimensions, from the positive to negative ends of the feelings spectrum:
- Attention to Feelings (e.g., you pay a lot of attention to how you feel; or you feel that emotions are a waste of time)
- Clarity of Feelings (e.g., you’re usually very clear about your feelings; or you can’t make sense of your feelings)
- Mood Repair (e.g., when you’re upset, you repair your mood by reminding yourself of all the pleasures in life; or when you’re upset, you decide that the “good things in life” are illusions)
Meta-mood skills become especially important in stressful situations. Our ability to adapt and successfully manage a stressor depends on our ability to attend to it and to identify and regulate feelings as we have them. If we can’t, those feelings can easily turn into a repeated reexperiencing of negative events in the form of continuous, ruminative thought, which can lead to depression. Intrusive ruminative thoughts under the influence of fear lead to anxiety. (For an in-depth look at negative thinking patterns, see Faulty Thoughts: Where Negative Thinking Patterns Come From and How Sahaja Meditation Changes Negative Thinking.)
Ideas & Trends
Emotional intelligence tends to emerge in the young, but we can continually upgrade it as we age.
Does emotional intelligence peak?
A pair of 2010 studies at University of California, Berkeley and Arizona State University examined how our emotional strategies and responses change as we age. Researchers found that our emotional intelligence and cognitive skills can actually sharpen as we enter our 60s, which may give older people an advantage in the workplace and in personal relationships (Levenson, Shiota, 2009). The meaning of late life often centers on social relationships, caring for and being cared for by others. Researchers found that older people have a harder time keeping a lid on their feelings, but they’re better than their younger and middle-aged counterparts at seeing the positive side of a stressful situation and empathizing with the less fortunate. They were also better at reinterpreting negative events through positive reappraisal, a coping mechanism that draws heavily on life experience and lessons learned.
Emotional intelligent consumers make better product choices.
A study of emotional intelligence in consumers found that people who understand their emotional abilities can make higher quality consumption decisions, such as health decisions and product choices (Kidwell, 2008). The study measured confidence, nutritional knowledge and emotional ability. Emotional ability was measured through a Consumer Emotional Intelligence Scale that analyzed four different dimensions: perceiving, understanding, facilitating, and managing emotions. The study demonstrated that a person can know a lot about nutrition and understand, intellectually, which foods are not healthy, yet still make poor decisions if they’re unable to recognize, reason, and solve problems that result from emotional patterns. For example, compulsive eaters may understand nutrition but not realize how their emotions are affecting their food choices. In those who made the healthiest choices, there was a high correlation or “emotional calibration” between their level of emotional intelligence and their confidence in their own emotional intelligence. Emotional miscalibrators, on the other hand, were actually more prone to eating high-calorie foods than people with low levels of nutritional knowledge and people who were confident that they could appropriately interpret and employ their emotions but didn’t, in fact, have high EI were likely to make bad choices.
Blair, C, and Razza, RP. Relating Effortful Control, Executive Function, and False Belief Understanding to Emerging Math and Literacy Ability in Kindergarten. Child Development, Vol. 78, Issue 2. 2007.
Blair Kidwell, David M. Hardesty, and Terry L. Childers. “Consumer Emotional Intelligence: Conceptualization, Measurement, and the Prediction of Consumer Decision Making” Journal of Consumer Research: June 2008. J. Casey, Leah H. Somervillea, Ian H. Gotlibb, Ozlem Aydukc, Nicholas T. Franklina, Mary K. Askrend, John Jonidesd, Marc G. Bermand, Nicole L. Wilsone, Theresa Teslovicha, Gary Gloverf, Vivian Zayasg, Walter Mischelh,1, and Yuichi Shoda. Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later. National Academy of the Sciences of the United States of America. July, 2011.
Damasio, Antonio. (1994) Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. Picador.
Damasio, Antonio.(September, 1999) The Feeling of What Happens. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Kidd, Celeste, Palmeri, Holly, Aslin, Richard N.. Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability. Cognition (2012).
Levenson, Robert, Michelle Shiota. Effects of Aging on Experimentally Instructed Detached Reappraisal, Positive Reappraisal, and Emotional Behavior Suppression. Psychology and Aging, 2009 December; 24(44); 890-900.
Mischel, W., & Ebbesen, E. B. (1970). Attention in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21, 204–218.
Mischel, W. (1974). Processes in delay of gratification. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 7, pp. 249–292). New York: Academic Press.
Mischel W, Ayduk O (2004) Willpower in a cognitive-affective processing system: The dynamics of delay of gratification. Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications, eds Baumeister RF, Vohs KD (Guilford, New York), pp 99e129.
Salovey, P., Mayer, J. D., Goldman, S., Turvey, C, & Palfai, T. (1995). Emotional attention, clarity, and repair: Exploring emotional intelligence using the Trait Meta-Mood Scale. In J. W. Pennebaker (Ed.), Emotion, disclosure, and health (pp. 125-154). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.